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in the heights review june 2021
In Washington Heights, bodega owner Usnavi ("Hamilton's" Anthony Ramos) dreams of a new life and a relationship with Vanessa (Melissa Barerra).

Review: “In the Heights,” a cultural valentine, just can’t stop dancing

In the Heights, the loud, sweaty, exuberant street party we’ve been waiting 18 months to enjoy, hits like, yes, the refreshing blast of an open hydrant on a hot summer day.

First scheduled for June 2020 but postponed for some reason or another, the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical dropped Thursday on HBO Max, the same day it reached theaters.

The musical felt like something of a groundbreaker when it opened on Broadway in 2008. Not because of its subject matter. No, in terms of plot, the show is a low-stakes romance between two pairs of would-be Washington Heights lovers. But the percussive, hip-hop-meets-salsa score, plus the focus on the culture of tightly connected neighbors with roots in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba, brought some needed color to the Great White Way (so named for its bright lights).

Anthony Ramos (Laurens/Philip Hamilton in Miranda’s Hamilton) plays bodega owner Usnavi (a role Miranda originated onstage; here he plays the small but piquant role of the Piragua Guy, who peddles his flavored ices around the streets).

Usnavi was brought to the United States at age 8 by his Dominican parents, now deceased. He has largely been raised by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Broadway role). Perhaps overly nostalgic about his early childhood memories, Usnavi dreams of packing up, moving back to the D.R. and opening his dad’s old beachside bar. To do so means he might never ask out his longtime crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who works at a hair salon but dreams of being a fashion designer.

Also in this social circle are Benny (Corey Hawkins), a dispatcher for the taxi company owned by Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who has a sweet spot for the boss’ daughter Nina (Leslie Grace).

Complications ensue, but there’s no real Big Bad here — just the threat of gentrification, already a problem in 2008 and much worse since then. There’s some mild suspense about the payout of a lottery ticket, and the characters endure paralyzingly hot weather (shades of Do the Right Thing) and a power outage. Mainly they dance, sing and talk — too much — about their dreams (that’s often what you get in musicals).

in the heights june 2021
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, right) and pals on the streets of New York City’s Washington Heights. (Photos by Macall Palay)

More than anything, Heights is a loving, high-kicking valentine to the bilingual, bicultural people of the neighborhood. Hamilton fans will get a kick out of some inside jokes, including the tune playing while Kevin Rosario is on hold on the phone or the identity of the man on the Mister Softee truck. Fans of the original Rent will welcome Daphne Rubin-Vega’s turn as the gossipy hair salon owner. And there’s a cameo by salsa superstar Marc Anthony (he doesn’t sing in the musical but did provide vocals for the end-credit song).

The film has restructured and shuffled some of the stage version’s elements (including killing at least one character and some songs), and it has a small but welcome dose of LGBTQ inclusivity. Its most notable plot update is an emphasis on immigration. One scene takes place at a rally in support of DACA and the so-called Dreamers it protects. By then we know one of the  characters we’ve come to love is undocumented.

Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) directs Heights with spirit and energy. He lifts some sequences with just the right amount of magic-realist touches, like a scene of two lovers dancing on the side of their apartment building, or a crowded subway car that carries Abuela Claudia back to memories of her Cuban childhood.

in the heights june 2021
Family and friends celebrate Abuela Claudia (Olga Meridiz, center, reprising her Tony-nominated Broadway role). “Abuela” is Spanish for grandmother.

After a year-plus of isolation, it may seem churlish to complain that the movie  may have too many crowded, ensemble dance numbers — in a nightclub, at the public pool and repeatedly in the streets of uptown New York. However well-choreographed (by Christopher Scott), they’re repetitive. At times Heights plays like an extended supercut version of West Side Story’s “America” and “The Dance at the Gym” combined.

Speaking of that, Stephen Spielberg’s new version of the 1957 Bernstein–Sondheim musical — Broadway’s original big attempt to celebrate Latin American culture (though made by non-Latin creators) was also postponed by COVID-19. It’s now scheduled to open in December.

With In the Heights already here, and feeling so fresh, I’m reminded of 1999. That summer, everyone was excited about the coming of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. Nobody cared much or even knew about another little sci-fi movie. But The Matrix premiered two months before the George Lucas film, and made it look overblown and stale. Might history repeat itself?